New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's most recent big idea - that globalization will lead inexorably to a peaceful and prosperous world - lies buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. Not one to be abashed by past folly, however, Tom has a new big idea: the battle of the day is not between the West and Islamism but rather between those who are religiously progressive and the fundamentalists of all religions - Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism.
That view at least has the virtue of political correctness. Islam, it turns out, is no different than any other religion. Each has its progressives and fundamentalists. Unfortunately for the Friedman thesis, he neglects to cite any other religion besides Islam that can claim thousands of adherents eager to blow themselves to smithereens in order to kill others, and millions more who celebrate such actions.
Friedman appears not to have read anything by Bernard Lewis, the greatest living scholar of Islam, on the sources of Islamist rage. Islam swept out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century and conquered much of the civilized world. For much of its first 1,000 years, writes Lewis, Islam was advancing and Christedom was in retreat. Only over the past 300 years has Islam been on the defensive everywhere.
Those historical defeats rankle for Osama bin Laden. For him, the loss of territory once under Moslem control and the degraded state of Moslem countries today vis--vis their non-Moslem neighbors stand as an ongoing challenge to the truth of his religion. Bin Laden remains obsessed with the Reconquista of Spain - "the tragedy of Andalusia" as he calls it - more than 500 years later.
Jews, by contrast, have lived for 2,000 years as a minority culture, without seeing themselves as being in competition with the majority culture. Territorial conquest and/or worldly success were never proofs of the truth of our religion.
More than two millenia ago, the Men of the Great Assembly taught (Yoma): "He restrains Himself and is slow to anger towards evildoers - that is His might. If it were not for the awe of Him, how could one small nation survive among all the nations - that is His awesomeness... Thus did we perceive God's might and awe, even as the wicked exulted in His Temple and enslaved His children."
The rage over historical affronts that characterizes so much of the Islamic world today is utterly unknown to Jews. In his commentary on the prayer Av Harachamin, Rabbi Samson Raphael describes how believing Jews remained free of the lust for revenge, even as they were the most persecuted of people: "They knew that God would never forget the blood of innocent men that had been shed, particularly if it was shed in His service... Our people have entrusted to God and God alone the task of avenging the blood of their murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children.
"This promise sustained them and kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors and
murderers, and made them strong enough to suppress every impulse to vengeance"
Friedman cites his rebbe, David Hartman, to the effect that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a tendency to believe that they have the exclusive Truth - a sin he labels "religious totalitarianism."
But he again fails to note the crucial differences between the three biblical faiths. Judaism, for instance, does not seek converts. Nor does Judaism deny that the righteous of the nations have a place in the World to Come.
THE progressive religion advocated by Friedman/Hartman turns out to be high-fallutin gibberish. Like good post-modernists, Friedman/Hartman call for a "multilingual view of God" that reduces different religions to nothing more than a series of narratives of human beings approaching God out of their different history, language and cultural perspective.
Religion, in this view, is nothing more than a man-made construct, an expression by men of their sense of the Divine. Revelation by an Infinite God to finite man, who would otherwise be incapable of apprehending God or knowing His will, has no place in such a vew.
The Friedman/Hartman redefinition of religion is an assault on the very concept of Truth. Jesus cannot be both divine and not divine, the covenant between God and the Jewish people cannot be simultaneously intact and superseded, Mohammed cannot have been a prophet and not have received prophecy.
For Friedman/Hartman, however, any proposition and its opposite are equally valid; it's all a matter of narrative perspective. Somehow, according to Friedman, man-made narratives need not weaken "religious passion."
It is hard to see, however, how such narratives of our own creation can supply the strength provided by traditional religion, or offer any guidance when it comes to our behavior. Take one example of the reinterpretation of religious traditions to "embrace modernity and pluralism" urged upon us by Friedman. A leader of "progressive" Judaism once explained that Judaism equals "social justice," and social justice in our time means abortion on demand and homosexual rights.
Very modern to be sure, and perhaps even pluralistic, as long as one does not dare to oppose abortion or homosexuality - and certainly not in the name of religion.
But it does leave one wondering what this progressive religion has to add to liberal politics, or why one would even bother with reinterpreting religious texts merely to buttress one's existing political views.
I'm eagerly awaiting Tom's next big idea.